I love the variety in this specific subgenre, and the way different time periods and places can lend themselves to different expressions of fantasy.
Here are five books I highly recommend, showcasing some of that variety…
Sistersong by Lucy Holland
As Celtic culture and religion clash with Christianity in 6th century Britain, this follows the three children of a local king. Keyne has always wished to be born a boy, and is fighting to discover his place in the family and the world — while quiet Riva and exuberant Sinne are finding their own powers, and moving towards a tragedy that has all the weight and wildness of myth.
Loosely based on the folk ballad The Twa Sisters, this was one of my favourite reads of 2021. It’s grounded and vivid, bringing the characters with their loves and jealousies and ambitions completely to life, while maintaining the deeper-than-life feel of folklore.
She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan
Every time I try to talk about this book I’m left waving my hands and shrieking RUTHLESS MONKS and OUYANG!! but here goes:
This is a fictionalised version of the rise to power of the first emperor of the Ming dynasty, set in 14th century China, and it’s the kind of book that grabs you by the neck in the first few pages and doesn’t let go. Watching the protagonist Zhu rise from starving peasant girl to the height of power, through cleverness and sheer ruthless grit, is only half the pleasure: the book’s other main players, especially the resentful eunuch general Ouyang, are equally compelling.
The fantasy element is relatively light in this one, but woven in nicely, and serves to underpin the sense of destiny and history.
Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
I’m cheating a little here and sliding a duology in as one book. In fact they’re fairly different, although they share some characters and a well-built, lively Regency world in which magic has always existed out in the open.
Sorcerer to the Crown is the story of the beleaguered Zacharias Wythe, battling to succeed in the face of a racist magical establishment while secretly wishing to be left alone with his books (very relatable), and Prunella Gentleman, an orphan with a great deal of magic and even more personality, as they try to discover why English magic is diminishing.
The True Queen widens the world delightfully by focusing on Muna, a young Malaysian woman who loses first her memory (to powers unknown) and then her sister (while travelling through Fairyland), and must seek help from the British Sorcerer to the Crown.
I love Cho’s sense of humour, her fond ear for the Regency voice, and her determination to stare firmly at the uglier aspects of a very popular historical setting for fiction.
Also, there are dragons.
Spectred Isle by K.J. Charles
As someone who writes queer romance novels heavily disguised as historical fantasy, I’d be remiss not including one of those on this list! Set in England after the First World War, this follows a disgraced archaeologist called Saul Lazenby as his life becomes entangled with a man called Randolph Glyde — and all the hidden supernatural dangers, disasters and obligations of Glyde’s existence.
It contains: magic based around the Green Man mythology, some vivid and extremely creepy horror writing, incredible tension both romantic and otherwise, and Charles’s trademark knack for creating flawed and hurting people who work their way towards a well-earned happiness with one another.
The First Bright Thing by J.R. Dawson
I’m finishing off with a book that won’t be released until June 2023, but for which I was lucky enough to read an advance copy [and we revealed the cover! Read an extract here – SciFiNow].
This is another one exploring the space between the two World Wars. (It’s a time that seems ripe for exploration with speculative fiction; I will cheat once more and also highly recommend Ally Wilkes’ historical horror book All the White Spaces, about a young trans man taking his dead brothers’ place on a polar expedition.)
Set largely in the American Midwest in 1926, this is a story in which magical powers — dubbed Sparks — have started to arise in the population, and it’s centered on a travelling circus which provides employment and safe haven for these magic-users. There’s a great deal more to this novel, including some bittersweet and thoughtful use of time travel and a truly terrifying antagonist who sent my skin crawling, but I recommend simply diving in head-first and letting it take you on a journey.
Freya Marske lives in Australia, where she is yet to be killed by any form of wildlife. She writes stories full of magic, blood, and as much kissing as she can get away with, and she co-hosts the Hugo Award-nominated podcast Be the Serpent. Her hobbies include figure skating and discovering new art galleries, and she is on a quest to try all the gin in the world. A Restless Truth, the sequel to the Sunday times Bestselling A Marvellous Light is available HERE